By Natasha Mann
‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the LORD your God.’ (Leviticus 23:22)
Parashat Emor gives us the second version of the command to leave the corners of our fields for the needy. We read the same command last week, with almost identical wording. In fact, the first version of this command has slightly more information about our obligation. The most significant difference between the two verses is the context: instead of appearing alongside similar commandments, this week the mitzvah appears as a brief interlude in a list of holy days alongside their sacrificial obligations. According to the classical rabbinic method of reading Torah, when information seems superfluous, it must come to teach us something new. Therefore, the repetition of this mitzvah must exist for a purpose.
The tractate of the Mishnah concerned with this mitzvah is Mishnah Pe’ah (‘Corner’). Mishnah Pe’ah appears to begin with two contradictory statements. The first mishnah states that pe’ah (leaving the corners of the field) is among the obligations that have no measure, akin to acts of lovingkindness and Torah study. The second mishnah gives us a minimum measure of one sixtieth of the field. It is usually understood that the first version is referring to the biblical commandment to leave the corners of the field, and the second is a rabbinic failsafe. In other words, the first explanation in the Mishnah (that there is no required measurement for pe’ah) describes the ideal, and the second explanation (that we must leave at least one sixtieth of the field) is a realistic attempt to actualise the mitzvah. Ideally, we would require no minimum measure; in reality, we do require one.
The system presented to us in Mishnah Pe’ah can help us to understand why the commandment of pe’ah appears almost identically in two different contexts. In the first context, we were given the ideal law: alongside other rules, such as avoiding idol worship and theft, we are told that the corners of our fields are for the orphans and the poor. The second appearance of the mitzvah, in Parashat Emor, comes as an interlude in a long passage regarding holy days and their associated sacrifices: within the biblical system, this is a time in which we are a) in our fields (during harvest festivals, gathering offerings for the Temple), and b) busy and joyful. We are therefore at high risk for ignoring the needs of those around us. The mitzvah appears here again to remind us of our obligations in the moments that we are the most likely to forget them. The medieval biblical commentator Sforno touches on this idea in his commentary on the end of the verse. ‘I am the LORD your God’ appears here, according to Sforno, to remind us of an important truth: our God is the God of the harvesters, and also the God of the gleaners
Natasha Mann will be receiving rabbinic ordination this spring and has been appointed to serve as rabbi at New London Synagogue, Hatch End Masorti and with Noam.